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An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why No One Was in Charge in Afghanistan

Three ways to prevent another debacle.

By , a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Afghanistan as a task force commander in 2007-08 and was a senior adviser to three four-star generals.
In this handout provided by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force personnel load passengers onto a C-17 Globemaster III during evacuation efforts in Kabul on Aug. 24.
In this handout provided by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force personnel load passengers onto a C-17 Globemaster III during evacuation efforts in Kabul on Aug. 24.
In this handout provided by U.S. Central Command Public Affairs, U.S. Air Force personnel load passengers onto a C-17 Globemaster III during evacuation efforts in Kabul on Aug. 24. Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen/U.S. Air Forces Europe-Africa via Getty Images

On the first anniversary of the meltdown of Afghanistan, one of the best ways for the United States to respect the service and sacrifice of Americans and Afghans is to learn from its shortcomings and enact sensible measures that reduce the likelihood of future national security disasters.

Washington’s unenviable track record in post-9/11 military interventions, combined with increasing global volatility, suggests that reform is necessary and urgent to avoid being trapped in another quagmire of broken promises and impossible commitments. Here are three issues that contribute to U.S. failures—and some practical steps the U.S. government can take to prevent more fiascos.

Coordination is impossible without a common playbook. The State and Defense departments are two agencies separated by a common language. The U.S. government has no official national security terms and concepts, so the same words can have different meanings, which makes coordination haphazard and heightens the risk of miscommunication.

On the first anniversary of the meltdown of Afghanistan, one of the best ways for the United States to respect the service and sacrifice of Americans and Afghans is to learn from its shortcomings and enact sensible measures that reduce the likelihood of future national security disasters.

Washington’s unenviable track record in post-9/11 military interventions, combined with increasing global volatility, suggests that reform is necessary and urgent to avoid being trapped in another quagmire of broken promises and impossible commitments. Here are three issues that contribute to U.S. failures—and some practical steps the U.S. government can take to prevent more fiascos.

Coordination is impossible without a common playbook. The State and Defense departments are two agencies separated by a common language. The U.S. government has no official national security terms and concepts, so the same words can have different meanings, which makes coordination haphazard and heightens the risk of miscommunication.

The tortured discussion about the meaning of the word “defeat” in 2009 during the Obama administration’s policy debate is a case in point. To the Defense Department, defeating the Taliban meant forcing them to abandon their efforts to overthrow the Afghan government. The State Department and the White House took the term to indicate that the Pentagon wanted to eradicate the Taliban, which reinforced their suspicions that the military was trying to box in the president for a massive troop surge.

Terms of art such as “reconciliation” had at least three meanings. For some State Department officials, it meant delivering a grand bargain between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Others at State and the Pentagon viewed it as an effort to pressure or co-opt Taliban leaders into defecting. Yet other officials took it to mean the process of getting talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban started. Without shared terminology and an expert body of knowledge on conducting wartime negotiations, Obama administration officials talked past one another, which undermined coordination and made coherence impossible.

The absence of agreed terms and concepts also impeded the U.S. ability to see and seize on opportunities. In December 2001, the Taliban offered to stop fighting and support the new government in return for being able to live in peace. Hamid Karzai, then head of the interim Afghan government, endorsed the deal, but Washington rejected it. Nine years later, the Taliban wanted modest concessions to begin talks with the Afghan government. State and Defense were at a loss about how to work together to use the United States’ considerable leverage. (I was the Pentagon representative in the talks.) The Obama administration was unwilling to prioritize gaining a negotiated settlement, and the negotiations went nowhere. By 2020, the United States found itself promising to withdraw all troops in exchange for Taliban counterterrorism promises.

There’s no one in charge on the ground. In most conflicts since Vietnam, no U.S. official below the president has been responsible and accountable for achieving U.S. war aims. As such, officials brag about individual progress while the war unravels.

The U.S. government deploys to conflict zones in bureaucratic silos. The military commander reports to the Pentagon, the ambassador reports to State, the development professionals report to the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the intelligence officers report to their agencies. The results are impressive individual efforts that become less than the sum of their parts and leave huge vulnerabilities.

The military’s singular focus for the first eight years of the war in Afghanistan on hunting the Taliban led to significant civilian casualties at the hands of Afghan militias, military forces, and the coalition. The State Department’s desire to maintain cordial relations with Afghan officials allowed a predatory kleptocracy to emerge in plain sight, exploit the Afghan people, and rob donor countries. Development efforts created a racket for corruption; most projects had little local economic impact and often created animosity. Afghan officials and power brokers duped U.S. intelligence by providing false reports about local rivals, which the spies sent to the military for targeting. These problems motivated people to withhold support from the government and some to join the Taliban.

Congress would haul the generals in to testify about the state of the war, but Pentagon officials could only discuss the military part of the U.S. effort. They would gesture cryptically at strategic risks such as corruption and Pakistan but were careful to stay in their bureaucratic lanes. The result was that Congress and successive presidents never got a strategic picture of the war—only the pieces their subordinates showed. This problem undermined the president’s decision-making ability and congressional oversight.

Likewise, the president had no one official to hold accountable for the direction and progress of the war. No one official had the responsibility and authority over U.S. agencies in Afghanistan to set priorities, allocate resources, and make decisions to advance the probability of a favorable and durable outcome. Cabinet meetings took place at such a high level of abstraction that general guidance went to the departments, and officials on the ground continued business as usual. The status quo led to a slow and expensive failure.

Dependency and corruption undermine legitimacy. Tough love is empathy without sympathy. Host nations need to earn legitimacy and learn to fight their own battles. The United States needs to stop enabling corruption and dependency.

In each major intervention since Vietnam, corrupt host nation governments hemorrhaged legitimacy faster than any well-meaning efforts could build it. Since these conflicts turn on political legitimacy, the United States’ inability to prevent or address corruption is a significant shortcoming. As with wartime negotiations, there’s no expert body of knowledge that officials can draw on for guidance and coordination. Longitudinal studies suggest that the self-reliance timeline for corrupt militaries is infinite. This situation presents problems for U.S. strategies that rely on transitioning security responsibility to the host nation.

U.S. diplomats and military officials were complicit in creating an Afghan government and military that could not function without U.S. aid, logistics, and air power. Afghan officials who had lived most of their lives outside the country had little idea of the difficulty of installing a Western-style government or the backlash that would come when elections appeared to be a cloaking device for corruption.

The U.S. military has a doctrine on training partner military units but nothing for building a developing country’s military institutions, especially from the ground up, as was the case in Afghanistan—so the military went with what it knew. Well-meaning officials created a mini-me army that lacked buy-in from the Afghan people and was impossible to operate independently. Afghan military officials, believing the Americans would never leave, turned their attention toward exploiting their positions for personal gain. Most Afghan senior offices were for sale, so people would pay the price, get the high-ranking job, and turn a profit by selling military equipment, food, fuel, ammunition, and repair parts on the black market. Dependency and poor leadership led to the Afghan military’s collapse.

The U.S. government should undertake three low-cost, high-payoff actions to learn from the Afghanistan debacle. Many of these problems damaged U.S. efforts in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Vietnam.

Publish national security terms and concepts. The Biden administration should develop an authoritative lexicon and basic playbook for future use so that officials use the same words to mean the same things and have anchor points for coordinating complex interagency efforts in conflict zones.

Designate who is in charge on the ground, and give them the resources and authority to succeed. In most cases, this person should be the U.S. ambassador, supported by an interagency staff. All U.S. officials in-country should report to the person in charge. If the sitting ambassador is not the right fit, then the president should appoint a civilian or military official, ideally confirmed by the Senate.

Develop expert bodies of knowledge on wartime negotiations, dealing with corruption, and building military institutions in the developing world. The Foreign Service Institute or other State Department institutions should house these areas of expertise, create educational and training curricula, conduct wargames, and support implementation.

These measures are no panacea and will not rescue the United States from impossible situations like Afghanistan in 2021. But they will reduce the number of unforced errors and own goals that make fiascos and tragedies more likely.

Christopher D. Kolenda is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in Afghanistan as a task force commander in 2007-08 and was a senior adviser to three four-star generals. He is the author of the award-winning book Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War.

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